Malcolm X called him the most impressive black man ever to walk the African continent. Just six months after becoming the first prime minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo (later called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and two days before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, Patrice Lumumba was shot down by a firing squad. But Lumumba’s surprising path and sudden death serve as a powerful reminder that for political leaders in many parts of the world, true reform has only one major prerequisite: survival.
Few countries today are as troubled as the Congo, a land of 68 million nestled near the center of sub-Saharan Africa. Belgian invaders looted the country for almost a century, during perhaps the most brutal colonization in Africa. But Congo, rich in resources like rubber, was once poised to be an African success story, thanks in no small part to the man his people called by one name: Lumumba.
Lumumba went from being a political prisoner to being his country’s prime minister at the tender age of 34.
Tall, wiry and intellectual, Lumumba grew up in a Catholic family in the Congolese countryside, working as a postal worker and beer salesman before risking his stable, middle-class life to join the anticolonial independence movement. He was quickly embraced as a leader of the movement, only to be imprisoned in late 1959 as the Congo was about to gain independence. But popular pressure forced his release, and nine months into his 69-month sentence, Lumumba went from being a political prisoner to being his country’s prime minister at the tender age of 34.
Lumumba led a poor Congo, where nearly half the population was undernourished. He had high hopes for enacting the agrarian reform necessary to feed his people, and that was just the beginning of his ambitious plans. Then, just three months into his term, Lumumba was deposed, in a move orchestrated by a cadre of great powers: the U.S. via the CIA, which had planned to poison his toothpaste on orders from President Eisenhower; England with the connivance of MI6; and Belgium, the Congo’s former landlord. The reason? A significant crime in the Cold War heyday: making nice with the Soviets, who, it should be noted, Lumumba leaned toward because of Western hostilities arising from the possibility that he might find common cause with the Communists.
“Even the jungle wanted him dead,” Joseph Conrad wrote of Kurtz, the Belgian ivory trader who ventures deep into the Congo in Heart of Darkness. It was as true for Lumumba as it was for Kurtz.
What followed was a coup by future despot Colonel Joseph Mobutu. Lumumba was arrested, beaten and trucked to a location where, with Belgian approval, he was put to death by a firing squad. According to one report, Lumumba was shot multiple times, and his body was dissolved in acid by Belgian military officials who wanted to prevent a full investigation. Mobutu took over the Congo, renamed it Zaire and looted it to the tune of $5 billion over the next 30 years. And it wasn’t until 2002 that the Belgian government apologized to the Congolese people for its role in Lumumba’s assassination.
Lumumba lives on in the hearts of many people in the Congo, but his lesson — like that of so many slain revolutionaries — may not be what he hoped for or expected. Being bold, principled and even on the right side of history will not lead your people into the promised land, nor will it make you the next George Washington, Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro. If, however, you’re willing to adapt and persevere, the rest may take care of itself. And if not, someone may just take care of you.
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